This month sees the publication of my 9th and probably most personal book, 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go). You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, writing and researching this one. But family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast. We discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful, funny, inspiring and honest new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them. It works for Australia, but it works for everywhere else too.
With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper). Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.
We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?” Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.
The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips. Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get. Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.
Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.
Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do. Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.
I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences. You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia. Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT), being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis). But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.
Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.
You can really get a sense of place by its name. Take Istanbul, Timbuktu, or even Bird Island (where I write these words, off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Revelstoke, the BC transport hub on the way from Vancouver to Banff, certainly has a name better than most. A town that lets you revel in the stoke? Come on, a high-priced brand agency couldn’t have come up with something that good. The town, population 15,000, got its name from one Lord Revelstoke, an English industrialist who rescued the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. In the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains, sandwiched by the mountainous beauty of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks, the town also boasts a ski resort with the greatest vertical descent of any ski resort on the continent. Fun for another time. We’re here for a family roadtrip in summer, driving six hours up from Vancouver to explore local activities for all ages, including another tick on my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List.
An Old Lady Lived in a Shoe in an Enchanted Forest
After crossing dramatic mountain passes and driving alongside large, scenic lakes, we pull off the Trans Canada Highway to explore The Enchanted Forest and adjacent Skytrek Adventure Park. With various high ropes courses through the tall forest trees, the latter is catnip for kids and adults channelling their inner gibbon. The former is eccentric and certainly bizarre. Dozens of tiny and not so tiny fairy tale houses have been built on the forest floor, complete with a castle, a giant climbing a tree, mermaids, wooden horses, and mischievous forest elves. A passion project that has been a popular, quirky roadside attraction for half a century, my young kids embraced Enchanted Forest with sheer, unadulterated delight. Happy kids, happy parents, and happier still that both these attractions are less than a half hour’s drive from downtown Revelstoke, where our room at the Regent Hotel awaits.
A town that straddles the industries of railway, forestry and tourism, Revelstoke is refreshingly devoid of glitzy retail brands, and oozes small town charm. It is protected from being overrun by its relative isolation from a major city, resulting in the kind of place where locals greet each other at free nightly summer music concerts in Grizzly Plaza, or at the weekend street market bursting with local flavours. Our outstanding meals at Taco Club, Nico’s Pizza, Paramjit’s Kitchen and the exceptional Quartermaster offered funky, homely and fine dining, while a visit to the Aquatic Centre (a must for young kids) made me pine for something similarly inexpensive and less crowded in Vancouver. Toasting outstanding craft beer at Rumpus Beer Co, I admired the moxie of the husband-wife owners chasing their small town dream, and wondered, along with many others I imagine, if Revelstoke is the kind of place where I could chase a dream too. A real sense of community permeates the town, a community that doesn’t mind living ten minutes down the road from a world class ski resort, or two and half hours from Kelowna, the nearest regional airport.
The Pipe Mountain Coaster
Revelstoke Mountain Resort is famous for the highest vertical run on the continent, but is embracing its four season possibilities. This means world-class mountain biking, and for my bucket list, the longest alpine rollercoaster in Canada. Taking the gondola up to mid-mountain, my family soaked in the stellar mountain views and fanning Columbia River, before hopping into yellow go-cart like contraption connected on a narrow single rail. My wife and I each put a kid in our laps and strapped in for a thrilling 1.4 kilometre descent. The Pipe Mountain Coaster twists, curves and whoops its way 279 metres down the mountain, through forest and breathless dips at speeds of up to 42 km/hr. A simple mechanism allows us to brake and go at our own pace, and most first timers will take it easy. Get the three-ride pass (or more) and you’ll soon dispense with the brakes altogether, hitting the hell-yeah! controlled maximum speed that ensures it’s safe and fun for the whole family. “Faster Daddy!” yelled my daughter, and who am I to argue?
Paddle at the Rumpus Beer Company
Feet away from the exit point of the coaster is newly opened Aerial Adventure Park, where you can easily spend two hours navigating fifty different balance and height obstacles, rising four stories above the ground. Graded like ski runs into green, blue and black difficulties, climbers are safely harnessed throughout the entire contraption. Watching brave little kids take on swinging rings or a knee-shaking four-story jump should add some pep to your steps. Fortunately, great food and craft beer awaits the victorious in the village regardless (and for the kids, ice-cream).
A Pirate Battle
River rafting is another popular summer activity in Revelstoke, with various companies offering grade three runs. For younger kids, consider Wild Blue Yonder’s River Pirates Tour, complete with pirate costumes, face paint, bush battles and fun tales of yaargh! Downriver from the impressive hydro dam, we drifted on the glass mirror of the Columbia River, listening to Captain Jack’s brogue as he recounted the myth of the man-eating moose. My daughter - made-up with face paint, bandanna’d, and now known as Jolly Lips Sue - had a blast. Nobody got wet, and foam sword battles continued back in our comfortable family suite at the Regent.
Here comes the train!
Fortunately the sword stayed behind when we checked out the old world Railway Museum, although the knives came out when my three year-old had his thermonuclear meltdown when we told him it was time to leave the large, warm wading pool at the Aquatic Centre. We packed a lot into just three days, and could have easily spent a week exploring this underrated wonder of the BC interior. It’s all right there in the very name of the town, where families can revel in the stoke of it.
Our 4 months living in Southeast Asia can be broken down into 5 parts:
Thailand was a great start. We jumped into the deep end of digital nomadism, swimming in an exotic culture, and enjoying a slower pace after the frenetic pace of Australia. Bangkok was a sort of purgatory as we waited to visit Bali. Bali was like an overharvested cornfield, a deep disappointment sprinkled with tasty moments. How desperately we needed Hoi An to be different, to be the anti-Bali, to deliver on the promise of why we chose to visit Asia in the first place. And how relieved I am, five weeks later as write these words on the plane back to Melbourne, to reflect that Hoi An delivered. Everything clicked. The warmth of the locals was sincere and inspiring. The food was fantastic. The facilities we found were top-notch. The friends we made were lovely. The house we lived in was the best of any we’d stayed in, the water buffalo abundant, the excursions fun. And most of all, the timing was perfect. Wet season along the central coast of Vietnam officially starts September 1st, the day of our arrival. But the rains only came October 1st, four days before our departure. What September did was dampen the interest of high-season hordes. Hoi An’s lantern-lit night markets, ancient storefronts and coastal attractions were busy, but never overcrowded and unmanageable. It also meant that the locals were even friendlier, flashing their gentle smiles and gifting the kids lollipops. Da Nang, the city that services Hoi An (located 45 minutes drive away along a quiet four lane highway) is exploding. It’s got a lovely long white sandy coastline with resorts and apartments starting to encroach. “This is probably what Rio looked like in the 1960’s,” says Ana. Given its turbulent history, communist Vietnam has embraced modern tourism with a fever, attracting bus loads of Chinese and Korean tourists with mega-resorts sprouting all along the coast, edging closer and closer to Hoi An’s old city. The Four Seasons, the Intercontinental, the Sheraton – it’s all coming in thick and fast, and it’s going to change everything, indeed, it’s already changing everything. The Canadian owner of Dingo Deli – one of our favourite hangouts with its great food and play area for the kids – tells us he was one of the first European families in Hoi An, when the inbound artery of Cua Dao was still a dirt road. This was less than a decade ago. Today, coffee shops and restaurants and tour operators and ubiquitous tailor shops and ATM’s and opulent-looking boutique hotels and mini marts line the paved roads to the Ancient City. In a decade, Hoi An could well become another Bali. And while it felt like we missed the boat with Bali – which must have been incredible a couple decades ago, at least we discovered Hoi An when the going was good. When we could walk beneath the colourful lanterns, scooter through rice paddies, lie in hammocks under coconut trees, shop in busy local markets, and drink strong coffee on the patios. The kids might remember key moments from the photographs that captured our stay, but we’ll remember the general feeling of cultural bliss, contentment, and adventure. Without doubt Hoi An proved to be the highlight of our Big Year, and one we’ll always remember with great fondness. With the pace of modern tourism and the explosive growth of the mass Asian market, going back would probably be heart breaking.
I’d never been to Vietnam, and now I deeply regret not putting it into my Modern Gonzo itinerary 13 years ago. It was a different country back then, just emerging from decades of Communist isolation. I’d heard a mixed bag of backpacker’s opinions: some complained they were ripped off every two minutes and hated it. Others said the people were lovely and it was their highlight of SE Asia. And now, so many years later, I heard the same stories, which illuminated the discrepancy. It appears the the big overcrowded cities are intense, and travellers feel preyed upon. Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) and Hanoi sound like places far removed from the reggae music, siestas and watermelon shakes we found in Hoi An. It is a small town that repeatedly came up in conversations with friends about places they loved most, and wished they could have stayed longer. Chiang Mai was the other one, and so no surprise we ended up in both. My knowledge of Vietnam, like so many 80s kids growing up in the age of ‘Nam movies, is pretty tainted by the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the American War. All that’s in the past. Heck, it seems that Communism is in the past, the Vietnamese taking their cue from China – the powerful neighbour that has played a huge influence on Vietnamese culture for millennia – embracing capitalism within the confines of a one-party state. Tourism is embraced and protected. After somehow talking my way out of corrupt police roadblocks in Bali and Thailand, I do not recall any police presence at all during five weeks in Hoi An. Gem’s Rider, where I rented our 130cc Yamaha Nuevo scooter, wanted to keep my drivers license as collateral. “But what about police and roadblocks?” I ask. “Oh, they’d never bother any tourists,” was the reply. Everything here appeared peaceful, the roads were clean, people got about their business (working 7 days a week, I should add). More than once I walked into a store during the hot mid-day siesta to find it abandoned, the products unattended and inviting theft from anyone off the street. It’s why we stopped locking the front gate. If locals are unbothered by petty crime, why should we be?
The only relics from the war were the stories we heard from an Israeli we met who was disarming bombs in the countryside for an NGO – “more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in the entire World War II” – and an underwater mortar shell that Ana saw in the bay when she was doing her diving certification. It continued to amaze me that these peaceful, gentle people inflicted a military defeat on the United States superpower, and then swiftly invaded Cambodia to unseat the horrific Khmer Rouge, and then held off an attack from China. The Vietnamese are strong yet peaceful, gentle but unbelievably proud.
We Air Bnb’d a house located over the bridge from the Ba Le Market off Cua Dai, in a neighbourhood served by narrow alleyways that can barely squeeze a car. Next door to us was a small holding with banana and coconut trees, and across the road was a modest yellow temple on the shores of a large river. The house was called Mali One, consisting of 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, two upstairs and two downstairs, typically rented individually. We took the whole place, giving Amy her own space and a different area for Raquel’s home-schooling. With temperatures ranging between 28C – 35C, air-conditioners in each bedroom were essential for sleep, and fans aerated the muggy air in the living areas. The shower pressure was great, , we could flush toilet paper, and brush our teeth with tap water. There were roosters next door and across the street, but their crows didn’t destroy us like they did in Chiang Mai. Dozens of geckos patrolled the walls, and fortunately we’d missed the brunt of mosquito season. A giant spider hung out downstairs by the front door, but we pretended not to notice it. On our first morning, discovering the Dingo Deli by chance, we met a Canadian family temporary living in Hoi An with their two daughters, the same age as Raquel and Galileo. We got to know Meredith and Jonathan, Charlotte and Aria well over the next 5 weeks, and shared the joys and challenges that come with schlepping your family around the world. They introduced us to Kahunas – a friendly backpacker’s beach club that welcomed families to swim in their pool and use their beach chairs. No $50 entry fee, no Bali exclusiveness. Having broken in our scooter skills, we could pile onto the long backseat of the Yamaha and cruise the relatively calm streets of Hoi An and its surrounds. Vietnamese scooter driving is as insane, probably more so, than in Bali. Bikes come from every direction, at any time. People bike on the wrong side of the road or on the pavements, using lights when they feel like it, carrying washing machines or mirrors or other bikes on their bikes, honking repeatedly and unnervingly. We saw a couple accidents, and drunk people who could barely stand much less pilot a bike. One hapless duo as so hammered on their bike they literally fell over in the middle of the street. The difference with Bali’s madness is that there was a lot less traffic. Outside of the hectic 4pm to 5pm school hour, the roads were generally calm and the highways basically empty. Ana and I took the bike on a roadtrip to the Hai Van Pass, cruising over mountains and through some of the busier traffic areas in Da Nang. As crazy as the riding and traffic was, it never felt nearly as dangerous and as desperate as in Bali. As a bonus, concrete paths created shortcuts through the green rice paddies that surrounded Hoi An, showcasing water buffalo and farmers in pointy hats accompanied by wonderful feelings of exoticness and travel buzz. I never wore a helmet, and have confirmed that riding a scooter with the warm tropical wind in my hair is as close to nirvana as I can be, more-so when I feel Raquel hugging me at the back, and have Gali holding onto the antennae-like mirror stands in the front. Speeding along the the “water buffalo road” to Kahunas, and zipping about the rice paddies on the bike, comprise my singular best moments of the entire year abroad.
Just about every morning I would pop on the bike and ride around the corner – slowly across the road that became more and more flooded – to the Ba Le market. Fresh bananas, mangoes, dragon fruit, watermelon…I’d have to haggle but at 17,000 dong to one Canadian dollar, it was always a bargain. Some ladies ripped me off more than others, my favourite was Miss Huey, who always added a handful of fresh mint, spring onions, basil and other herbs the Vietnamese add to the soups, noodles and sandwiches. Across the road was the white house bakery, where I could buy fresh baguettes and breads, and a little further down, the Hoi An version of Bali’s Everything Shop, although it wasn’t very big and certainly didn't have everything. There were no supermarkets in Hoi An, no 7-11s, no Cocomarts or Pepito Express – and the two stores that sold groceries left no doubt that it was cheaper and a lot easier to just eat out. Meals would cost between 30K – 130K, depending on the type of restaurant, and unlike Thailand or Bali, there were plenty of affordable Western options. Raquel liked her freshly squeezed lime juice, Gali his watermelon juice, and every day the kids would have their Yakult and Milo drinks, along with homemade ice lollies from juice. We made our own smoothies, and although I cooked schnitzel a couple times, we got a lot of take-aways from one-person kitchen restaurants nearby. Visitors to Hoi An typically come for about 2-3 days, rent a bike to cycle in the rice paddies, visit the lantern-lit Ancient Town, check out a few temples perhaps, and pop into a tailor to get a suit, dress or shirt made. Every Friday we’d go to the Chabad – always the only non-Israelis – and those we spoke to were amazed we were actually living in Hoi An.
“But what is there to do here?” they’d ask, and we’d say, “not much, which is why we love it.” After having done so much this year, the opportunity to spend days by a luke-warm pool drinking Larue, Saigon or Tiger beer sold cheaper than bottled water while the kids play with new friends to the tunes of vintage reggae is as close to paradise as we can hope for. Of course we got the suits and dress made, it’s the thing to do here, and you’ll struggle to find bespoke tailoring cheaper. On the advice of someone from the Hoi An Expats Facebook group, we ended up at Cloth Shop Sue, where I got a suit, a blazer, 4 shirts and 3 waistcoats, and Ana got a suit, dress, and pants. Shipping wasn’t too expensive, so we sent 26kg of clothes, souvenirs, books, and other stuff we’re trired of schlepping around home to Canada via sea. Hopefully it arrives! In our home was a 2002 copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, and the country it describes is very different from the Vietnam 16 years later. Hoi An is described as a small but popular town famous for its temples - we only visited one of them, by accident. Our two sojourns were me taking Raquel on the bike to the Marble Mountains, a series of limestone outcrops overlooking flat Da Nang. We took the elevator up to the top and visited a couple cave temples, sweating bullets in the process. After riding 90 km;/hr with Raquel, I’m more confident than ever to get a motorbike! Our second adventure was to the Ba Na Hills, a bizarre kitschy French medieval-style theme park built high in the mountains, and serviced by cable cars. It was expensive and took a while to get to, but the admission price included all the rides, and they’d recently unveiled a stunning “hand” bridge that made world news when it was unveiled a few months before we got there. We went to see a water puppet show, which was quite fascinating, visited Cham Island, which was less so. Amy took the kids on a small traditional boat that looks like a saucer, after which they made stuff with coconut fronds. We visited the Ancient Town a couple times, took the boat on the Ancient Town to let the kids make a wish as they released a floating candle-lantern. We hit pub night where we didn’t fare particularly well but did win a pitcher of beer, and followed that up by a visit to the Dive Bar, which wasn’t a dive bar at all, and watched Jonathan support the local nitrous oxide balloon dealer. With booze this cheap, tourists were more than happy to buy rounds for everyone. For Ana’s birthday, Amy looked after the kids while Ana and I spent the night in a fancy hotel, having dinner and dancing to a samba band (yes, a samba band!) at a place called Soul Kitchen in An Bang. From the layabout couches to the kid-friendly restaurants on the beach, there was just so much to love here. Raquel even took ballet classes on Saturday mornings, with an English teacher who knew what she was doing (in stark contrast to Bali). The expat community heard about us and it’s a small circle – the folks with young kids living in a small town in a strange country. Otherwise, no lost boys in caves or tragic earthquakes, although the ceremonial president of Vietnam did die, not that we (or the rest of the world) heard much about it.
A typical day looked like this:
6am - 8am: Wake up, make breakfast, hear about Amy’s evening exploits with the South Africans living in Hoi An teaching English to Chinese students online.
10am – 2pm: Kahunas or playdate
2pm – 4pm: Gali naps, Raquel does school with Miss Amy downstairs, Robin works in Australian Bucket List website/Ana explores/get PADI certified/rides around looking for baguettes.
4pm – 6pm: Kahunas or playdate with Charlotte or bike ride to the water buffalo or or some such thing.
6pm – 8pm: Dinner, shower and bed time.
9pm – 11pm: Monopoly Deal or Netflix or Pub Quiz or Girls Night Out or Book Reading or Sleep.
Other memories: The Koi Café, the karaoke clubs, the weddings, the trips to the one ATM machine where you could withdraw 5m dong. The inflatable pool on our upstairs patio, emptying the water over the sides into the banana trees. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Chabad eggplant, hunting for diapers, hunting for new shoes for Gali. The challenging Wednesday night Pub Quiz (the most populous mammal on Earth is not humans!), the Birthday night away in a real hotel and dancing to Samba at Soul Kitchen, the horrendous sound of river frogs, the power failures, the horrendous sound of Vietnamese karaoke, the insanely strong coffee, the kids doing this, the kids doing that…
It’s all a blur, and time does fly when you’re having fun. Unlike Bali, where the highlights were crisp because they were fewer and far between, days in Hoi An blended into each other the way we blended the market fruit into smoothies. At the the end of it, when Amy looked after all four kids and we hit the town with Jonathan and Meredith - four parents of four young kids bewildered to have some fun time to ourselves - we realized we’d be sad to say goodbye, and yet if you don’t, months will blend in the same sort of motion blur. It’s just hard to get much done when the going is this good, and it’s the closest we’ve had to a family holiday since we took the kids to Maui in April 2017. For despite what people think, just because you’re travelling, it doesn’t mean you’re on vacation. At least, until you find yourself in a place like Hoi An, the kind of place travellers visit for a few days and end up staying for a few weeks, the kind of place that vindicates your wild, crazy, irresponsible and risky decision to go travelling for a year in the first place.
After so many miles, misadventures and meat pies, I'm delighted to be launching my 9th book, The Great Australian Bucket List , available October 9th online and in bookshops throughout Australia and New Zealand. It's been a very long and very wild ride, packing in years of travel into six crazy months, and years of writing into the same. As for bringing along my family, two kids under five can only make the intense travel and writing easier right? Right.
As with my previous books, I believe that essay-style stories inspire, and are best read on a printed page illustrated with beautiful photography. But I believe that practical information is important too, best accessed online where it can be easily and frequently updated. The Great Australian Bucket List follows this successful formula: a stunning, inspiring book supported by an extensive companion website - www.aussiebucketlist.com
With any luck, both will have the same impact in Australia as the The Great Canadian Bucket List had in Canada: inspiring millions of locals and visitors to explore unique, one-of-a-kind destinations and activities around the nation (and becoming a smash bestseller as a result). From jungle surfing in the world's oldest rainforest to swimming with giant tuna, chasing ghosts in haunted prison cells to hiking the remote outback, Australia has buckets of amazing stuff to explore.
Here's a quick peek at what I got up to:
The book is published by Affirm Press, the fastest growing publisher in Australia, driven by passionate readers who believe in stories as much as I do. I have to give a shout out to my amazing sponsors and partners: Presenting Partner Ford Motors Australia, Oaks Hotels and Resorts, Jetstar Airways, World Expeditions, Journey Beyond, Discovery Holiday Parks, Move Yourself, Sunshades Eyewear, Tourism Tasmania and Queensland Tourism and Events. Thank you!
The family travel project was an entirely different trip altogether. You can check it out at the online trip journal we custom-designed to record the adventure: www.esrockingkids.com. Along with our partners above, special thanks to Valco Baby, Keen, Footwear, Britax and Victorinox.
I met so many wonderful people on my journey, and as always, the people I met (and the family I travelled with) shaped my experience. I learned so much about Australia, and myself. This is what travel does: new places stoke new emotions, new people stoke new ideas, new landscapes inspire new life stories.
There's no word as yet if/when The Great Australian Bucket List will be available on shelves outside of Australia and New Zealand. I'd love nothing more than my Canadian, Global and Australian books to find their way to stores worldwide, but that's up to the gods, agents, and the publishing industry. In the meantime, you can buy it online anywhere through Book Depository (with free shipping worldwide) and in Australia online through Booktopia, Dymocks, Collins, Big W, KMart, Newslink, QBD or fine indie bookstores. As always, it's the perfect gift for everyone from kids to grandparents, and will appeal to all ages and interests.
Thanks as ever for the support, and may your travels continue to be rich and fruitful.
Should you take your young kids to Bali? Like so many other factors when it comes to travel, much depends on the nature and ages of your kids, your time, resources, interests, and what you hope to get out of the journey. This post explores some of the options available to young families in Bali, discovering some amazing destinations and activities, but some challenges too. I hope you find it useful.
The Resort Experience.
Bali is a beach-and-coconut-tree escape, the chance to relax and recuperate during the holidays. Dozens of island resorts are designed and catered for visitors to drop’n’flop, and we sampled one of the better ones, the Hotel Nikko in Benoa Beach. Airy and relaxed even in high season, the resort makes life a little easier for young families with spacious family suites (think tall bunk beds and rubber ducks in the oversize tub); an inclusive kids program with toys, books and more importantly, staff to look after the kids; family-sharing options on the menu at their outstanding Bali Luna restaurant; inclusive buffet breakfasts; and of course, a terrific pool and white sand beachfront. This is all young kids need really – sun, sand and freshly squeezed juice! Raquel beamed when I raced her along the coastline on a jetski, taking advantage of the discounted watersport rates offered for hotel guests. There was even a family spa– easily a highlight on our Asia adventure – in which Ana and I got a gentle Balinese massage while Raquel got her nails painted, and Galileo was head-massaged into a blissful slumber. The day culminated with a sensational outdoor bubble bath, and later that evening, dancing to the songs in the piano bar off the lobby. We didn’t want to leave the Hotel Nikko, which would be just as well, given Bali’s transportation challenges.
The Transportation Woes
I have never seen traffic anywhere as snarled, choked and unpleasant as Bali’s Uluwatu Road in the late afternoon. I’ve never seen taxi drivers as unscrupulous as those preying on tourists in high season Bali. A simple drive to Ubud 46 kilometres away took us over 3 hours. A simple drive to the airport 9 kilometres away from our place in Jimbaran took nearly 90 minutes. Even with GrabTaxi (SE Asia’s Uber equivalent) and a similar local service called Go-Jek, drivers frequently tried to double or triple the agreed-upon price in the app, and randomly cancelled rides if something better popped us, leaving us stranded. Winding narrow back roads and some terrifying driving all but ensured at least one kid would throw up in the car. Taxi drivers physically accosted us on arrival at the airport – definitely arrange a driver to avoid this – and some Grab drivers told us that the taxi mafia physically threaten them or in some cases have beaten them up. It’s horrendous and an unpleasant symptom of overtourism. Unless we braved the roads on our scooter with both two kids, going anywhere proved to be an immense challenge in terms of patience and nerves. By the end of our month-long stay, you could have offered us the world up north and we would have gladly declined to avoid the frustration of getting there. If Bali were a resort bubble island, this would be OK, but there’s so much to see and do and so much culture to explore. I suggest you pace yourself with the activities, keep it local, budget extra extra time to get around, and keep a towel handy if your little ones turn green in the backseat. Note: Bali’s roads are notorious and scooter accidents are all too common. It is not uncommon to see tourists hobbling on crutches and wrapped in bandages. Insurance is rare and expensive for bikes, more than double what we paid for the bike itself. We picked up helmets for the kids, and my comfort level and experience riding gave me confidence to explore the island with them on the scooter. I do not recommend anyone doing the same without knowing and accepting the risks.
Balinese art and sculpture is extraordinary. Huge statues of Hindu folklore greet visitors at intersections, temples are built of polished black volcanic stone, ceilings and doors are painstakingly crafted out of wood with incredible attention to detail. Easily the most jaw-dropping of all is the 121-metre high statue that towers over the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, transforming the skyline of south Bali. The world’s second tallest statue took three decades to complete, and fortuitously we arrived at its unveiling. On scooter, I discovered back roads to get up close, and took the kids to the opening night party to see hundreds of performers entertain dignitaries beneath giant bronze statues of Garuda and Vishnu, and between looming cliffs carved from limestone. Even though the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour, the bright costumes and passionate dances were sensational. The Balinese beamed their wide smiles at the kids, sweeping them up and tussling their curly hair. We’ve found our young kids get treated like royalty in Asia, and Bali was no different. Locals were fascinated with Raquel’s corkscrew locks, and Gali’s naughty smiles. We braved the Transportation Woes of Uluwatu Street to get to the namesake temple, perched on a dramatic cliff overlooking waves smashing into the coast. Somehow navigating the chaos of crowds that gather here each sunset, we got tickets for the famous kecak dance – inspiring me ever since I saw the film Baraka – and a spirited performance of Hindu folklore. It would have been a perfect evening if we could have got home without the taxi saga (this one drove off with our stroller and never returned it). One more reason to have your own driver, if you can afford it. On scooter, Raquel and I stumbled into stunning temples, explored Nusa Dua and Seminyak, while Ana and I visited a fantastic art museum in Ubud. Still, the statue of a golden-crowned Vishnu riding the mythical eagle-like Garuda will stay with us forever, a symbol of Bali’s art, culture and ambition.
Bali has no shortage of beaches, although with kids I suggest you find the one that works for you and stick with it to avoid the Transportation Woes. Our local beach was Jimbaran, which is famous for the many seafood restaurants that lay out tables and chairs on the sand each evening. It’s truly a magical sight: hundreds of candlelight dinners under the stars, stretching all the way down the beach, and soundtracked by the sound of waves. We ate a sunset dinner on Jimbaran four times, choosing the restaurant at the far end so the kids could play with their toys in the beach sand. It was always fabulous, and fortunately close enough for us to scooter in and out without tarnishing the experience. We also learned to sit a little higher up as the tide often came in causing some hasty reseating for the front row tables. Unfortunately, Jimbaran by day revealed washed up plastic and garbage. Resorts keep their beachfronts clean, but on a large public beach, Bali’s pollution problem is on full display. The first (and last) time I took my daughter into the surf in Jimbaran, sticky threads of rotting plastic wrapped around our legs. We had much better luck at the Sundays Beach Club, where Raquel relished her first true sea swim, playing in the turquoise waves. The beach was gorgeous and the kids had a blast with free toys provided, as well as the steep funicular to get to the sweet infinity pool on the cliff edge. Sundays was terrific, but as often found in Bali, the good stuff came with a price - both in terms of dollars, and the frustration of finding a way home (the taxi driver tripled the top rate the friendly concierge told us we should pay, scowling and speeding when we refused). We also visited Dreamland and Padang-Padang, but found them overcrowded with tourists, and the surfer-friendly waves not particularly kid friendly.
After Thailand, we figured we’d reached the peak of Asian cuisine, and then we discovered the joys of Indonesian street food served up in eateries known as warungs. The price discrepancy between tourist restaurants and warungs is enormous: the same delicious nasi goring picked up at our favourite warung for $2 might cost $16 at a restaurant. Aware that Bali Belly lurks in the shadows, we were hesitant at first but quickly found two fantastic neighbourhood warungs that made culinary artistry with the local dishes. Our kids have been eating chicken, rice and noodles in some configuration for months already, so it speaks volumes that they (and we) never got tired of our dishes. Sweet soy sauce chicken, gado-gado ayam, tempe stews, and yes, French Fries too. We cooked a fair bit at home but it was usually cheaper and easier to hop on the bike, pick up food at the warungs and bring it home. Groceries from Cocomart and Pepito Express were fresh if a little pricey, juicy tropical fruit was available from street vendors and markets. Some things are more expensive than what you’d pay in Australia or Canada (milk, cheese) and some things a lot cheaper (beer, fruit). Be aware that the Balinese love sweet things, and sugar is everywhere! Just about every place we visited used bottled water for drinking and cooking. We did get a mild case of Bali Belly when we visited a more western-styled warung...but we really should have known better considering the name of the place: Stop Makan Yuk!
Activities for Kids
Given the weather and the rough state of some of the beaches, waterparks are a popular option for families visiting Bali. Waterbom in Kuta draws big crowds, but we found Splash Waterpark in Canngu far better suited for little ones. Part of the Finns Recreational Club – think of it as sort of a country club – the deck chairs are arranged around a large kiddie waterpark, and the rides are just the right balance of scary, safe and fun for everyone from young kids to teenagers (and yes, us parents too). The huge family size pizza, served to us poolside with cold beer and freshly squeeze watermelon juice, is a thing of beauty. Surf schools are also popular for young kids, and resorts offer the various watersport activities. A good tip for those on a budget is Klub Jimbaran, which has kid-friendly pools and menus. Near to our neighbourhood we found the drop-in Blue Dolphin Playskool incredible pricey and geared towards expats. Better luck was found at a new outdoor play area called Jungle Play, which was opposite our favourite work-and-eat- spot called Café Kul Kul. It cost around $6 per kid at Jungle Play (although there were frequently specials and half-price days), and the staff were absolutely lovely. Also nearby was a day-care-like facility called Hompimpah, where our kids were more than happy to play with the huge range of toys in air-conditioned bliss (about $6 for three hours and half price on Mondays). We signed up Raquel for their weekly ballet classes, while Galileo was content to just visit the cows that lived in a field around the corner from us.
We lived in Bali for a month, renting a house in an area called Puri Gading, and exploring the southern part of the island as best we could. Without our five and two-year-old, we undoubtedly would have seen and done more. Travelling with kids definitely limited our options, but it dramatically expanded our family bonds, and the emotional richness of our experience. Getting around was certainly our greatest challenge, but there were plenty of magical moments. Being in a position to contrast our experiences of long-term family travel in Bali, Chiang Mai and Hoi An Vietnam, I’d honestly recommend Bali for a family resort holiday, and Thailand and Vietnam for the convenience, cost and lifestyle.
Living in a country, as opposed to travelling through it, is a form of travel I have long felt missing in my repertoire. My career, after all, has too often involved the ticking off of unique experiences, and then running off to the next destination. After a frenetic 6-month research period in Australia to write my next book, and with my daughter only starting kindergarten at the year-end, it felt like the perfect opportunity to live in a place I've always loved, and in places I've yet to explore. We started with six weeks in Chiang Mai.
I first visited the city 2005, and fell in love with it. Unlike the congested, polluted mess that is Bangkok, Chiang Mai was friendly, peaceful and calm, beaming with golden temples, cheap eats, and guesthouses. I returned a few years later to film an episode of Word Travels, and always thought: “If I had to live anywhere in Asia for a while, this would be the place.” With my family and Amy, our own travelling Mary Poppins-assistant in tow, we found a semi-detached house outside of the Old Town on Air Bnb, and prepared to settle into the neighbourhood. The Thai – at least those outside of heavy tourist zones - are just unbelievably, remarkably, authentically warm and gentle people. They love children. They smile a lot. They are 95% Buddhist. We weren’t off the plane for five minutes and felt reassured by the welcoming nature of the culture. . Our house was at the end of a soi, an alley, off a busy road. Everything was so different, so anything-goes, so jarring, so unlike Australia. Like most Thai houses, ours didn’t have much of a kitchen (a gas burner, a fridge, some basic cutlery and utensils). Like most Thai houses, we wouldn’t be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. The beds were rock hard, the furniture basic, the shower pressure almost non-existent. A rooster crowed directly across from us all through the night (more on the rooster later). There was blessed air conditioning in the bedrooms, and just a fan downstairs. Mosquitoes and flies patrolled the windows and the wonky screen door. Inside the place was clean, but a little rough around the edges, softened each Monday when the cleaner would come and leave it spotless. When we arrived, my wife looked at me like I was a madman for bringing us here. But at least we wouldn’t have to unpack after a few days, and at least we didn’t have anything in particular to do. We could just be.
It took us about 10 days to get our bearings, to navigate the wild discrepancies between tourist/rich Thai prices, and local/poor Thai prices. After our careful budget in Australia, we leaned heavily towards to the latter. All that beef in Australia disappeared from the menu in Northern Thailand (unless we wanted to pay $50 for a steak in a fancy mall restaurant). Up here, they love pork, pork and smelly fish, rice, pork and rice, and lots of chicken. Prices for food in the big Tesco supermarket were significantly more expensive than Australia. We splurged on olive oil. Cheap plastic toys from China were triple the price.
In fact, everything was more expensive than I anticipated. In the decade since I last visited, Chiang Mai has become a haven for an estimated 3000- 5000 digital nomads – people who can work from anywhere - and Chiang Mai is as good as an anywhere as you’d want to be. A military coup that took place a few years ago in Thailand must be good for business and tourism because the sheer number of visitors and new hotels within Old Town was staggering. Every shop was a guesthouse or tour operator, a massage parlour or restaurant. While we might see one or two westerners wandering about our neighbourhood, once we crossed the old walls into Old Town, gringos were everywhere, still wearing the baggy elephant-imprint pants one can only wear in Thailand without looking ridiculous. At first, we wondered if we made a mistake booking a place so removed from the thick of Old Town, but quickly came to appreciate it. Because we did indeed get to know the community, who embraced us after a couple weeks when they realized we were not the typical transient visitors. We slotted into a lifestyle that was more than just visiting temples, going to overpriced bars and eating pad thai. Although we definitely visited temples and ate pad thai.
Temples and Mobikes
Getting around was affordable and easy, something we really only appreciated when we arrived in Bangkok, where getting around was difficult and comparatively expensive. Mobike, Chiang Mai’s public bicycle system, allowed us to rent bikes with handy baskets in the front, seemingly perfectly designed for the kids to sit up front. Solar powered and blue-tooth operated through a phone app, the bikes could be left anywhere, so we basically just “borrowed” a few to use and permanently kept them outside our heavy sliding green gate. It cost 10 baht (about 50c) for a half hour, although I got a 200 baht ($10) unlimited use for 90 days pass. My fondest memories of Chiang Mai are riding the streets with Raquel or Gali in the basket, stopping at temples, waving to locals. Chiang Mai is mostly flat, and the Mobikes – at least the orange ones we used and not the wonky silver ones – were super comfortable. We never saw any other kids in the baskets, and neither had anyone else, which is why Gali and Raquel were instant rock stars on the Mobikes. Smiles and laughs and waves came from every direction. For further distances, Grab Taxis is the local Uber, and they eliminated the constant haggle and rip off with tuk tuk drivers and taxi drivers. The fare was always fair, and the drivers gave us no nonsense. What a game changer! We took a few tuk tuks, more for the experience, but between the Mobikes and Grab, we could get around wherever we needed to go. On the last week, I hired a scooter, which was super fun, even if we had to wear a helmet primarily to avoid the bribes we’d have to pay at roadblocks (only foreigners get stopped if they don’t have a helmet). Our underpowered bike didn’t make it up every hill, but we had a fun day lunching by a river, feeling the jungle breeze, and braking for elephants. Raquel only fell asleep twice, on the scooter, in heavy traffic. Raquel and I took a bigger bike for a 90-minute ride to the beautiful Sticky Waterfalls. It was quite the adventure I hope she somehow remembers, racing 100 km/hr through the jungles of Northern Thailand, seated between my legs.
One the ladies
“Hi-low Lay-dees!” The local Thai ladies were besotted with the kids, especially Gali. We never got their names and would not be able to remember or pronounce them if we did, so we just called them “the ladies.” On our street, upstairs in an old wooden house was an old lady always sewing. She always smiled and waved, and raced downstairs one day to give the kids handmade Thai clothes. We printed out a picture of her and the kids to say thanks. When we said goodbye, she gave the kids teary hugs and some wooden Buddhas. On our corner was the “chicken fried rice ladies”, working in their gritty local eatery a tourist wouldn’t go near. We must have waved and greeted to them at least six times a day. They made us the fine and tasty chicken fried rice that we ate a couple times a week. Then there was the Thai Ice Tea lady, although we all had our favourite Thai tea lady. The Plastic Lady, who provided us with plastic bins and knick knacks and spoke some English. The Pad Thai ladies, another place tourists wouldn’t blink at but made a great 30 baht ($1.50) pad thai. The Market Ladies, the Fruit Lady, the Temple Lady (above) who always cried when she saw the kids, the Pancake Lady, the Ice Cream Lady. We did cook at home a fair amount and realized how much we miss an oven when we don’t have one. We made do with pasta and deep friend chicken and eggs and toast in the morning, although usually had to watch out for the geckos jumping out of the toaster. My wife took a Thai cooking class and came home to make a fantastic Tom Yum soup. It was often more expensive to buy the ingredients than just grab a pad thai. Without eating pork or stinky fish, it says much about Thai cooking that we ate chicken/rice/noodles in some configuration for 6 weeks without getting tired of it. There was a local vegetable market - more friendly ladies - around the corner, along with a Tesco Express and 7-11 (a mini supermarket), and it all amounted to a situation that became dependably convenient – something we again only appreciated when we left Chiang Mai.
Pity the fool who messes with this 5 year-old
Also around the corner was a gritty local Muay Thai gym – Thai kickboxing. We paid the friendly manager Ratana to give Raquel private lessons on Thursday nights. Ratana and her pretty daughter loved Raquel, who cut the cutest curly-haired figure sparring among sweaty fighters. She learned to keep her fists up, kick, punch and elbow, and survive the massive mosquitoes attacking the gym in the early evening. Ratana took lots of videos, she thought Raquel was just amazing. We hoped the lessons would help burn off some of her energy so there wouldn’t be a prize fight trying to get her to sleep that night.
Although we tried hard not to be tourists, of course we did a few touristy things. Art in Paradise is an interactive art museum that blew us away, putting us in the picture with dinosaurs and masterpieces. The kids loved the Elephant Poo Poo Park, where dung is sustainably converted into paper (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and in case you're wondering, doesn't smell at all). We visited a massive waterpark called Tube Trek, the Saturday Night Market, which was so much better than the overcrowded Sunday Night Market. The Ginger Farm, where Gali fell into a muddy trench. He had more luck at the Buak Hard Public Park, which had the only decent playground we could find. Of course there were all the amazing temples, and we had a beautiful moment with an elephant on the road without visiting an expensive and dubiously elephant park. We made friends with wonderful locals and expats (and their kids), celebrated birthdays. Along with the rest of the world, we anxiously watched the dramatic rescue of the schoolboys from a cave located a few hours drive away. We joined hundred of Israelis every Friday night for a Chabad feast, and enjoyed the spectacle of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, washed down with tall bottles of cold Singha beer.
Next door was a Burmese family who prepared rounded fish balls over burning charcoal, the smell of which reliably wafted through the windows each afternoon. Each night, and often during the day, the loud roosters would get started. If they didn’t keep us awake, they invaded our dreams. We spent long nights lying in semi-sleep thinking about how much we’d love to kill those damn birds. I suppose it was revenge for the sheer amount of chicken we ate every day.
Making paper with elephant poo
Art in Paradise
We brake for elephants
The smell of the camphor/citronella mosquito spray. The ants that would snake from the ceiling to the garbage bin in the kitchen. The kids writing with chalk on the patio outside before the daily late afternoon tropical rain would wash their scribbles away. Amy’s ongoing saga with the dodgy dentists of Chiang Mai. The manual washing machine we didn’t use in the back, and the communal washing machines we did down the road. The modern malls and dragon fruit. The homemade ice-lollies with the plastic we bought from the Plastic Lady. To say nothing of Chiang Mai itself, with its bustling markets, and shiny golden Buddhist temples, orange robed monks, crazy traffic, and pungent fish-sauce fragrances. The kids couldn’t enjoy our $15 hour-long massages in the dark but innocent backrooms off the strip next to the Doo Dee Bar, but they sure chomped down the surprisingly good biltong we managed to find, made by a Dutchman, and delivered to our front gate.
We could only appreciate how comfortable we’d become in Chiang Mai when we bid our farewells and arrived in Bangkok for 2 weeks. Our first Air Bnb was such an epic disaster we had to evacuate it after a few hours (with a small refund, thanks Air Bnb). Our second last-minute emergency lodging was called the Paradise Sukhumvit, which was as far from Paradise as you can imagine. Our third attempt was modern and clean and on the 29th floor of a condo in Thonglor, which is where you want to be in sticky, smoggy Bangkok, away from the insane traffic and noise and mayhem. A big city means less smiles, and more issues getting around to do anything. The disparity between expensive “normal” restaurants and cheap street food, between normal Thai and rich Thai/expat, is bewildering and excessive. The traffic can often jam you into a single intersection for 15 minutes. Grab Taxi is double the price here because you’re hardly moving. It’s enough to make you want to lock yourself up in a tower with a swimming pool and air conditioning and hardly venture outside. We did take a couple crazy river boats and visited some of the bigger temples, hooked up an amazing indoor play area in a ritzy mall where a hand bag costs more than several month’s wages. Still, Bangkok offered up some wonderful and vivid moments: riding the loud riverboats up the narrow canals (always preferable to the frustrating gridlock in the back of a taxi). The incredible temples and time well spent in the wonderful condo infinity pool above the snarling traffic on Petchaburi Road; a play date with a family from Vancouver; Raquel conquering the monkey bars for the first time in Lumpini Park, seeing a movie where the audience must stand and sing tribute to the King (I'd say more about the King, but in Thailand that can get you arrested).
Bangkok, oriental city...
We hope Chiang Mai is only the beginning of the amazing experiences to come in Bali and Vietnam (and a side trip to Singapore to see our old dear friends), as opposed to the pinnacle of our Asian adventure. Because if I reminisce about it so fondly after being away from the city for less than a week, memory will likely grow positively and brighter as the months and years pass. My family spent 6 weeks in Thailand. Not travelled in, but lived. It was a culture shock, it was full of big challenges, unforgettable and wonderful moments, lovely people, and everything we hoped it would be. Next up: Bali.
The full-face mask is the snorkel’s first improvement in decades, and allows the user to breathe and speak without anything in their mouths. There’s a bunch of them on Amazon. I bought this one, ready to introduce my daughter to the wonders of marine life. Raquel and I board Maui Dive Shop’s Ali’i Nui catamaran in Ma’alaea Harbour for a 3-hour snorkel expedition. Some strong winds derail the planned sailing to Turtle Point, so we sail to up the coast to a protected reef. Raquel went bananas on the trampoline-like canopy at the fore of the ship, jumping around like a lunatic. She ate a piece of celery from the rib n’wings buffet. We suited up and hopped into the water with a kickboard and life vest. I help her with the mask, she takes one look down, and that was the end of my plans for the mask. Not interested.. I don’t care if Humu the tropical fish is dancing the cha-cha down there, I am not putting on that mask again. Raquel has a way of saying all this with her eyes. To her credit, I get her into the water a couple times, but she refuses to look down, and only lasts a few minutes. So we spent a couple hours on a catamaran, playing with a feisty Brazilian granny and her grandkids, talking about what Daddy does and how to take photographs. I’ve snorkelled the world over, Maui can wait. Advice for parents: If you plan on actually seeing or doing anything while with your toddler, you’re in for a disappointment. If you plan on just hanging out with your happy bouncing kid, it’s smooth sailing all the way.
Ka'anapali Beach Hotel
Further up the coast, about a half hour’s drive from Wailea is the second oldest hotel, and certainly the oldest-looking hotel, on the popular Kaanapali beach strip, the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel. It bills itself as Maui’s most Hawaiian hotel, which means it is independently owned, has pioneered various cultural programs, and is far removed from the spit-polished gloss of the Fairmont. While the rooms look and feel like a throwback to the 1970’s, the location is steps away from the beach, its whale-shaped pool a hit with the kids, and the well-kept gardens are full of native plumerias bursting with flowers. Sure the shower drain was blocked and the screen door unhinged, the bathroom tiny and the pillows a little lumpy, but the KBH is far more realistic for our budget, and as Raquel bounced between the two beds, she yelled “Daddy, this is even better than the last hotel!” The needs of a toddler are tremendously simple: if you can jump between two beds, life is grand. Staff at the KBH were lovely and their KBH Aloha Passport kids program kept Raquel busy with Hula and ukulele lessons.
The on-site Legends of Ka'anapali Lu'au was fabulous, and it didn’t take long for Raquel to get up on stage and participate. Our meal in the Tiki Terrace was memorable, we self catered in the handy covered pavilion, and our Ocean Front room was literally steps from the shallow break of Ka'anapali’s famous sandy beach. Raquel quickly found a few friends, including a 5 –year old boy named Floras from The Hague, who she simply called “My boy!” They played for hours in the pool while his Dad and I got sunburned. Gali awoke at 5:30am one morning so I took him for a walk along the path, past the glitzy Whalers mall and the Marriott and Hyatt mega resorts. There was a surprising amount of people on the trail. Many of them were pushing strollers. We aloha’d each other, sharing the camaraderie of exhaustion and elation to be beachside at sunrise.
I wanted to treat my wife with something different. Spas are the typical go-to, but massages tend to blend into each other, a short-term fix. Catching your first wave on a surfboard however is something you never forget. I looked after both kids while Ana took a surf lesson with Goofy Foot Surf School in Lahaina. She used to be a dancer so I figured her first lesson would be way more successful than my first lesson, which consisted of non-stop wipeouts in the cold waters of Tofino, BC. With Gali teething and especially clingy, I think Ana would have enjoyed two hours alone in a closet. I dealt with the kids while she paddled out to a small break where all the surf schools gather. And there we watched her not only get up the first time, but stay up over and over again, graduating to a few bigger waves. She was as thrilled as I’d hoped she would be, immediately regretting that she’d waited so long to surf, considering she grew up on a beach in Rio. Nobody should ever say no to a massage, but if you want to treat your wife in Maui, give her a challenge to overcome in the healing waters of the ocean. And a break from the kids, of course.
Napili Kai Beach Resort
By our third hop, we’d realized, as most travellers do, just how much we packed that we simply didn’t need. We could blame the kids, but the reality is we can only blame ourselves. Having gone through the worst Vancouver winter in 33 years, we’d quickly forgotten what warm weather feels like, that all we’d need is bathing suits and flip-flops (and diapers, wipes, toys and teddies) . We packed up and headed north up the coast to the Napili Kai Beach Resort, framing a perfect crescent-shaped, reef-protected beach with toddler friendly waves. Steps away from the ocean is the resort’s large pool, a hot tub, and a 27-hole putting green course Raquel couldn’t get enough of. If you enjoy infinity pools like I do, you’ll appreciate that Room 232 in Napili Kai’s Puna Two building has an infinity patio. The view from the bedroom and kitchen is all ocean, so much so that it feels you’re on a cruise ship.
Meanwhile, the fully equipped modern kitchen quickly taught us this: if you’re travelling with toddlers, a kitchen is gold. Oatmeal porridge at 3pm? A cheese sandwich at midnight? No problem! Raquel helped me with the groceries for several nights of simple meals – spaghetti, oven fish, rotisserie chicken, and we saved a bundle. We even had a blender and ice-maker to craft our own pina coladas. After 12 days of sunshine, a tropical storm hit with sheets of raining falling for 36 hours. Confined to a room, we were relieved it was this one, where we could watch Netflix movies on TV (thanks to a handy HDMI cable connected to my laptop), stare at the ocean, and let Gali nap in his own space. Of course, there was still time to play on the beach, explore the grounds, bury Raquel in sand, make sand castles, and splash in the pool. All three resorts were great, but the self catering flexibility of Napili Kai, and the proximity of its facilities, worked best for our kids.
Relaxed, finally in the flow and on a schedule that works for the kids, it’s time to dynamite it all to hell. Air Canada’s return flight from Maui is a red-eye (they don’t call it their Air Canada Rouge service for nothing). We arrived at the airport two hours early and barely made check-in. Line-ups, heat, frustration, delays, wrong seat assignments – every hour that dripped by eroded the pleasant memories of Maui. Finally on the plane, the kids are caged monkeys, eventually collapsing in exhaustion on the unspoken condition that we don’t. Ana bends herself into a pretzel on the floor with one kid using her as a pillow and the other as a footrest. Raquel has a full thermonuclear meltdown on arrival, and by the time we get home, she climbs on the couch, puts a blanket over her head, and we don’t hear from her for six hours. She’s never done this before, and it’s quite impressive.
A few days later, the colours of Maui are fading (along with Raquel’s mysterious rash) , but our experiences on the island remain bright, the photographs sealing in the memories with a varnish that will only improve and become more valuable with time. I pick up Raquel from daycare, and ask her: “Did you tell everyone about Maui?”
“No,” she replies. “I forgot to.”
She might be over it, but I believe our two weeks on the Valley Isle hardcoded our children with a love for the ocean, island life, the aloha spirit of Hawaii, and an appreciation for warm, sincere hospitality. It definitely hard-coded a love for travel, for the next sentence out of Raquel’s mouth is: “Where are we going next?”
A special mahalo to Tourism Hawaii, Tourism Maui, Theresa Betty, the Fairmont Kea Lani, Kaanapali Beach Hotel and Napali Kai Resort. Click here for more info about visiting Maui.
I’ve cage dived with crocodiles, hung off the side of holy mountains in China, and vacationed in Chernobyl, but here’s the truth: the thought of travelling for the first time with my 4 year old daughter Raquel and 9-month old son Galileo terrified me. Curly-haired Raquel seems to have fallen Obelix-like into a cauldron of Red Bull, she’s a T4 bull in a china shop of tranquillity. Gali is newly teething, crawling, and hasn’t seen a hazard he hasn’t wanted to wrap his gums or baby carrot fingers around. Still, it’s time to break them in, because with a Dad like me, travel is in their future. So I thought I’d start somewhere easy and beautiful, spreading a couple weeks over a range of accommodation options. Expectations are the death of travel, and yet toddlers are particularly gifted when it comes to ensuring that no high hope is trampled under the weight of their hyper-emotional little piggies.
No matter how great your toddler vacation is, the reality is it will be bookended by a plane ride three stories up from hell. I fly a lot. It’s my chance to work, read, watch a movie, daydream at altitude. A six-hour direct flight from Vancouver to Maui should be nothing. If the kids sleep. To stack the odds in my favour, I reached out to Fly-Tot, who sell an inflatable legroom pillows. We’d be flying in late at night. How bad could it be? Bad. Real bad. Gali is chewing on the tray tables and seatbelts (and you know how often they get cleaned). Raquel is vibrating with kicks and punches. Rather than sleeping, the kids are using the Fly-Tot as a trampoline. Playing Frozen on the iPad worked, but it only worked once, and then Raquel... let it go. Like condemned prisoners at a public hanging, my wife and I gaze into the eyes of fellow toddler parents, dealing with the trauma of their own journey. Each minute of each hour has the weight of a cannonball. So frazzled by the experience, I commit a cardinal travel sin and forget our two bottles of duty free liquor – blessed late night Scotch/Baileys escape - on the plane. Air Canada’s cleaning staff relieve us of the bottles no more than five minutes after we deplane and I remember the forgotten bag. “Sorry sir, our cleaners didn’t find anything.” Aloha to them.
Welcome to Maui! Grab our bags and shuttle to the car rental, and spend 45 minutes in a late night line-up. Now the kids want to sleep. I push two chairs together and Raquel passes out. I feel like Parent of the Year. Get the van, install the car seats, strap in the kids, load in the luggage. It’s a 45-minute late night drive in the rain to Wailea. Could anything be worth this?
The Fairmont Kea Lani
Yes, waking up on the 7th floor in a Deluxe Ocean View suite at the Fairmont Kea Lani is definitely worth it. The sun sparkles off the Pacific. Koi swim in ponds amidst manicured gardens and clear azure pools. Coconut trees rustling in warm tropical air as sweet as nectar. Stripped of the jeans and hoodies we won’t see for the next two weeks, the family hums with travel buzz. We chomping at the bit of a beach vacation. Out feet touch the reddish sand of Polo Beach, and then it starts:
“I don’t want to go to the sea Daddy!” Oh look, Gali has a fistful of sand in his mouth. “It’s too hot Daddy!” “It’s too cold Daddy!” “I’m hungry!” “I’m not hungry!” “Where’s my blue spade?” “I want a red spade!” “I want what that other girl has!” “Pick me up!” “Put me down!” “This rock is scary!” “I want to go to the pool!” Toddlers are complex algorithms that dance to a convoluted rhythm only they can hear. The first chance we have to relax is much later that night when both kids are asleep. No late night walks on the beach for us, but we do sip cocktails on our patio, beneath a planetarium of stars, a scene scored by the soporific sound of crashing waves. The flight is a distant memory. Aloha Maui. Finally, aloha.
Buffet breakfasts have ruined us. Raquel quickly gets used to her one mouthful of a dozen different dishes, and miso soup is now a breakfast staple. We tag team feeding both kids as Gali singlehandedly supports the birdlife of Hawaii who gather beneath the snow of egg that falls from his high chair. Staff give us crayons for the kids each morning, and Gali’s favourite breakfast dish becomes the colour Red. Hours turn to days as we rotate between the pool, suite and beach. Raquel is too young for Kea Lani’s Keiki Kids Club, but she can drop into the stocked daycare-like facilities in the afternoon, when Gali is napping and the sun is too strong. There were so many toys I almost cried when we walked into the room for the first time. We explore the grounds, make a run to the nearest supermarket, buy the only two things we didn’t pack while realizing we won’t need most of the things we did.
The family dines at the sensational Ko restaurant downstairs, a romantic meal of dreams invaded by our overtired, overhungry kids who care little for the chef’s inspired creations. Before the appies arrive, out come the iPad apps. My wife is afraid to let me go to the bathroom because she thinks I might run away.
Every time I meet a Dad or Mom in the knee high, pee-warm toddler pool, where Raquel spends most of her time (beaches be damned) we sport our 1000-yard stares, shrug our shoulders, and let the giggles and laughs of our kids melt our hearts. There is an Adults Only section at the Kea Lani, and I wonder how many hearts are melting with the ice in the umbrella-topped pina coladas. The Fairmont was our high-end option, a refuge of stunning views that fluff your eyes like pillows at turn down service. It’s the other end of cheap. One morning, as Gali stands up in his hotel crib beaming a two-tooth smile, he says “Dadda” for the first time. I pick him up, step out onto the balcony, and together we smile at the dreamy world before us. Cost of that, and so many other Fairmont moments: Priceless.
The bucket list drive in Maui is the road to Hana, a hairpin-winding track alongside soaring ocean cliffs. We made three turns and turned around, avoiding the projectile backseat vomit we knew would follow. This pretty much ruled out a drive to the Haleakala volcano crater too, which I’ll have to get to once the kids are a little older. We did drive to Makena Beach where Raquel flew a kite for the first time. I brought it from home and she didn’t want to do anything except fly that kite. She flew it for exactly 34 seconds, and never wanted to see it again. We drove up to Twin Falls and got some great photos amidst the giant bamboo and dual cascades. The Banyen Tree in Lahaina is unlike any tree I’ve ever seen, sporting 16 trunks and a block-wide canopy. We ate lunch in the Flatbread Company in Paia, after which I lost my wife and daughter in the shops. Raquel was having an allergic to reaction to her all-natural sunblock or the heat or the seawater, or something the Internet told us could probably be treated with a little Benedryl. New parents would spend a day in a local hospital, only to be told to use a little Benedryl. Fortunately we’re over the paranoia and worry that accompanies the firstborn. Instead we visit Baby Beach where the full-face snorkel mask I bought for Raquel is thoroughly enjoyed by all other kids on the beach. They tell me it works like a charm.
Up Next: Pt 2, featuring Kaanapali, Napili, and a Treat for Mom.
“Robin Ayers Rock?”
“I’m sorry, did you say Ayers Rock?”
“No, E-S. Rock.”
My grandmother once told me how people from Australia thought she was joking when she gave her surname. It never struck me how similar Esrock is to Ayers Rock, but throw in a few accents here and there, and no wonder locals this week raised an eyebrow. It was something I got used to pretty quick during my visit to Australia, along with the fact that you don’t have to tip, and fast food joints charge you for ketchup pouches.
After the comfortable flight into Brisbane via Auckland on Air New Zealand, well deserved of airlineratings.com Airline of the Year Award, I breathe the warm, tropical coastal air of northern Queensland on my patio at the Thala Beach Resort. Humidity hugs me as I gaze out over the forest canopy and picturesque bay, listening to the songs of birds and frogs. Parrots flutter about in the trees adjacent to the windowless dining room, with the natural assets of tropical north Queensland on full display. My first introduction to the Great Barrier Reef is on Quicksilver’s wave-piercing catamaran, which delivers tourists to a permanent pontoon on the outer barrier reef. Beyond snorkelling, I soak up the time in a semi-submersible boat ride, an underwater observatory, in the skies with a helicopter ride (the view is extraordinary) and my personal highlight - on an underwater platform with a fish-bowl like helmet on my head, petting a friendly and unnervingly large Maori wrasse. Well, that’s one way to experience the reef. Another is by sea kayak, launched the following day from Thala Beach in the early morning hours. Sea turtles pop their heads out the water to see what the fuss is about, but I’m more distracted by the lush costal mountains framing the coastline.
Back to Cairns, which serves as the gateway to the northern barrier reef, I hop on a small plane for an hour-long flight to Lizard Island National Park. Home to an important marine research station, Lizard Island also has glitziest resort on the reef, with 48 luxurious villas facing a turquoise bay and white sandy beaches. Re-opened after two cyclones caused havoc, the resort is the epitome of elegance – white walls, wooden boardwalks, palm trees, an azure pool, fine dining and spa. It’s also on many a diver’s bucket list, especially the Cod Hole, where giant potato cod swim with curious sharks and technicolour fish on the outer reef. It’s my first scuba dive in some time, and as I descend beneath the surface, surrounded by hundreds of barracuda, I’m reminded of previous visits into the weightless underwater wonderland of ocean diving. I chase reef sharks, stare into the eyes of the giant cod, navigate reef canyons. “Damn!” I exclaim back on the dive boat. “The Great Barrier Reef delivers!”
A raucous farewell party on the beach (maintaining my perfect record of skinny dipping in warm oceans at night under the stars), fly to Cairns, fly to Gold Coast, climb a building, storm watch from the 27th floor balcony of the stylish Peppers Broadbeach, and I’m in the co-pilot chair on the 10-seater plane to the most southerly resort island on the barrier reef – Lady Elliot Island. Renowned for the manta rays and turtles that visit the island home year-round, Lady Elliot is the most accessible reef island for Australia’s southern capitals, popular with families, divers, weekenders and daytrippers. I pick up snorkel gear at the dive shop, take a few steps from my cabin into the lagoon, and the reef explodes with life and colour. The small, coral cay island is surrounded by reef, and with excellent visibility, regarded as one of its best dive and snorkel spots. I submerge through the Blue Hole, an underwater tunnel that opens up into marine world beaming with life. Look at the size of that white tipped reef shark! Hello Mr Curious Turtle! Check out the grace of that manta ray! With just one opportunity to dive, I’m deeply jealous of the divers who are here for a week, but grateful to have the opportunity to be here in the first place. Still, snorkelling from the Coral Garden to the Lighthouse is so rich with turtles, coral, fish and manta rays that anyone can enjoy the reef, no scuba certification necessary.
The Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the world’s natural wonders, it’s one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s also surprisingly accessible for a wide range of budgets, and as you can read above, offers a wide range of experiences, some that even allow you go underwater and keep your hair dry. Accommodation and meals are uniformly outstanding, the weather reliably co-operative (even when it rains or is overcast, the reef is open for business!), and the locals famously cheery. Even if your surname sounds like a prank call, that’s something every visitor can appreciate.
Raquel on the Copacabana
When my daughter was 6 months-old, my wife and I took her on a one-month drive from Vancouver to Ottawa, staying in 18 different hotels. We did this because we are clinically insane. Before she was a year-old, she also visited New York, and spent six weeks in Brazil, including a one-week roadtrip to the state of Minas Gerais. We discovered that Brazilian restaurants do not have high-seats like Canadian restaurants. We also discovered our willingness to let total strangers pick her up so we could enjoy three minutes of peace with a freshly-shucked coconut. I did some research into travel products that might have made our lives easier. Maybe they'll make yours easier too. Oh crap, I think I just became a Daddy Blogger.
Portable Booster Seat While baby-friendly chairs are common in Canadian restaurants, we battled to find any on a recent trip to Brazil. The Go Anywhere Travel Feeding Booster Seat, invented by parents who love to travel, is just the kind of boost we needed. Compact and weighing just 1.5lbs, the chair folds out with a five point harness and adustable straps. Any normal chair becomes instantly baby friendly, a comforting idea for baby and you.
Baby Hammock for Flights
We were so hoping for a bulk head seat, or even just an empty chair, but no, the plane was jammed and bulkheads taken, and so we had to make do with a grumpy baby on our laps for the 10 hour long haul. What we needed was Flyebaby’s Airplane Baby Comfort System – a hammock that attaches safely to the seat in front of you, allows front seat movement, face-to-face contact, is FAA approved and good for take-off and landings.
Portable Travel Crib
Co-sleeping often means no-sleeping, and heavy travel cribs can be inconvenient for flying. That’s why I love Phil and Ted’s superlight, globally safety certified Traveller. The crib/play pen has full mesh sides, a thermally-insulated mattress with fitted sheet, aliminium frame, and best of all, weighs just 3.2kg, collapsing small enough to fit in the overhead bin of a plane, or even a backpack. Keep baby warm and snug in the French-inspired Badaboum Sleep Sack. Perfect for new borns to 3 year-olds, and travelling parents needing a few hours of sleep.
We’ve got baby flying, sleeping and eating, now we have to get him/her around. After trying a few brands, my wife and I settled on Ergobaby’s Baby Carrier. Its padded waistbelt, shoulder pads and kangaroo-like pouch fits snug and comfy.
Baby’s weight is distributed evenly, she loves being able to burrow into our chests, and the adjustable hood creates dark or shade. It’s machine washable, has a pouch for a pacifier and has three carry positions. Best of all, it can be used without consulting a manual.
Of course, you’re not going to be carrying your baby everywhere. You’ll need a small, light and practical umbrella stroller. First Year’s Jet Stroller is just the ticket. Weighing 11 lbs, larger wheels make for a smoother ride, with a wider seat and 5-point harness keeping bubs in the chair longer. A canopy protects from sun or rain while the seat reclines for napping, and the attached storage pockets are ideal for everything baby needs for the excursion ahead. If you’re in a colder climate, keep baby warm, dry and cozy in Bumkin’s stroller blanket.
iPad Travel Case
A prayer from us parents to the creators of Baby Einstein, and the invention of tablets. Sure, the videos don’t make your babies smarter, but it definitely keeps them occupied with shapes, colours, sounds, and movement. Of course, you’ll want to protect your tablet before putting it into the hands of a 6-month old. Fisher Price’s Laugh & Learn Apptivity Cases for iPads and iPhones worked great for us. The device fits securely into the protective case, is safe from drool, bites and bangs, and locks the content by removing access to the start button.
Babies sure know how to make a mess. Food and toys flying everywhere, stained clothing, and in the case of my daughter, projectile spit with the velocity of a water cannon. Dapple Baby’s On-the-Go Essentials kit has everything you need to keep baby, bottles, clothing, toys and pacifiers clean. Made with all-natural ingredients and free of dyes, parabens and phthalates (which sound as nasty as they spell), the airline friendly kit includes a bottle and dish liquid cleaner targeting milk and odour, toy and surface wipes, individually wrapped pacifier wipes, and handwash sink packets.
We love the convenience of baby food in squeeze packs. Less so the cost, and the fact that we can only buy processed food. Enter the aptly-named EZ Squeezees, a reusable pouch that lets you easily add your own fresh food, secure with a strong zipper, and hand the pureed goodness to your baby or infant. The non-stick pouch is easy to clean, either under running water or in a dishwasher. Best of all, the website includes dozens of fruit, veggie, allergy and other recipes. Easy peezy!
Ju Ju Be Diaper Bags
Diaper bags are not created equal. They need to be practical, sturdy, and fashionable to boot. Katheryn Lavalee, one of Canada’s best mommy bloggers, swears by her loud, bright and multi-funcitonal Ju-Ju Be. “I just took it to Jamaica and it was a lifesaver; held all my boys' gear, my stuff, my camera and was still small enough to qualify as a personal item.” Anti-microbial linings, crumb drains, insulated bottle pockets, a memory foam changing pad – Ju Ju Be’s BFF TokiDoki has it all.
Zip Lock Bags
Not all baby travel accessories need cost a fortune. Pack zip lock bags for food storage, waterproofing essentials, keeping wipes wet, and small toys and pacifiers clean. Zip lock bags are cheap, light, and easy to pack in bags or pockets.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.